America Was Hard to Find
by Kathleen Alcott
reviewed by Jessica Vestuto
I read Kathleen Alcott’s America Was Hard to Find while on an overnight flight crossing the Atlantic. By the time I had finished the book and was approaching the daylight waking Europe, I hadn’t seen America for several hours—and yet I felt I had a better view of the country than ever before. Alcott’s third novel takes place over the course of four decades and examines the significance of individuals in times of national upheaval. Brilliantly reimagining the Cold War era, it portrays the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis through their effects on three vastly different lives. The story begins in 1957, when Fay Fern, a reluctant child of privilege turned bartender, meets Vincent Khan, a married test pilot, near an Air Force base in the Mojave Desert. After their brief affair, Fay becomes a radical anti-war activist, and Vincent becomes the first man to walk on the moon. Both also become, unbeknownst to Vincent, parents to Wright.
Wright’s upbringing is exceedingly unconventional, full of pamphlets and protests, and exceedingly lonely as well. As he moves from hotel to hotel with his mother, the stability and comfort of a normal childhood is out of reach. He distances himself from both Fay and her work, which has become increasingly violent over time. The depth of his resentment, which turns him cold and impenetrable in his teenage years, recalls the stoicism of his famous father—a man who, when instructed to enter a pitch-dark room and leave after precisely two hours (one of NASA’s many severe training regimens), was off by mere seconds. As an adult, Wright reaches out to his estranged father in a series of drunken, heartfelt letters, and though the two eventually meet, the encounter is short and disappointing. The book ends in the 1980s, with Wright living in San Francisco. By then, the AIDS epidemic is spreading through the city like brushfire, and Wright loses friends, lovers, and any chance he had at happiness.
All the era-defining events of the sixties, seventies, and eighties are here, but Alcott offers no glossy front-page version of history. Instead, we see the oil embargo through Wright watching two men fight in the gas line. The moon landing is understood not through the gain of scientific achievement or glory, but through Vincent’s grief once he returns to Earth, having reached the pinnacle of astonishment too early in life. The carnage of the Vietnam War is felt in Fay’s unrelenting self-harm, including a harrowing scene in a motel bathroom: fueled by guilt and self-loathing after organizing an antiwar demonstration that resulted in the death of a civilian, Fay plucks out her eyelashes one by one.
Yet the strongest feature of the novel is its elegant and cinematic prose. In Alcott’s narration, light entering a room becomes an event, the color of the sky something you can almost taste. A restaurant’s personality is described by its “booths as red and cheap as the wine.” Northern California’s weather appeals to a character because it has “moods like his, the fog in the morning skulking guiltily around the hills until noon, a correlative to the half-dead feeling he had the first few hours he was awake.” The depiction of Vincent’s excursion to the moon has all the resounding eeriness of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a blend of isolating fear and limitless wonder. Equally powerful are the book’s insights into American culture: money, for example, is “a party you entered and could not leave.” Luxury is owning “a house indistinguishable from the one next door.” Alcott writes about the country as it was more than half a century ago, but her portrayal feels remarkably current, each decade cascading into the next, bringing earlier greeds and preoccupations with it.
At its core, the book presents two very different, very American ways of living—one that represses and conforms, and one that rages and protests. Alcott suggests that, taken to an extreme, both ways of living lead to the neglect or disregard of others: ideological thinking produces a kind of tunnel vision whereby one is incapable of seeing beyond one’s own immediate and self-made world. During his final steps on the moon’s surface, looking at a sight he will never see again, Vincent has a disappointing revelation: “This was the real misfortune of the people on Earth, he thought: they had made their lives somewhere they had never really seen.” Alcott’s book is one antidote to this problem, a lens that offers a clearer view.
Published on September 10, 2019